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Zeiss Batis 18mm f/2.8 Distagon FE Review

Dustin Abbott

April 11th, 2018

The very first Sony FE lens that I reviewed was not a Sony; it was a Zeiss.  When Zeiss approached me about reviewing the Zeiss Batis APO Sonnar 135mm f/2.8 lens, I actually had no way of doing so as I didn’t own any Sony bodies.  B&H Photo bailed me out by loaning me an a7R2, which allowed me to also do a mini-review of that camera as well.  While I wasn’t completely blown away by the a7R2, I was very interested in the idea of having autofocus lenses with that legendary Zeiss optical performance. While I didn’t take the plunge to purchase the a7R2, some of the positives of that experience (and the thought of autofocusing Zeiss lenses!) translated into serious interest when the Sony a7R3 was announced, and, after reviewing that camera to death, I made the decision to purchase one for myself.  One thing I knew after that experience with the Batis 135mm; I was seriously interested in the Batis line if I ever added Sony to my own kit.  That interest certainly didn’t go away.  So, when I knew that I would be visiting the Shenandoah Mountain region in Virginia along with making a trip into Washington, D.C., I reached out to the great people at Zeiss North America, and they hooked me up with a couple of Batis loaners – the Zeiss Batis 25mm f/2 Distagon T* along with the lenses big brother, the  Zeiss Batis 18mm f/2.8 Distagon T* (which I’m reviewing here).  I decided to look at the two wide angle Batis options at the same time so that I could compare and contrast them for myself…and for you.  The Batis 18mm f/2.8 is a serious lens in performance and price (nearly $1500 USD).  Does its performance justify that pricetag?

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Batis 18mm f/2.8 Build, Design, and Handling

The Batis series has a very familiar look. This is the 22nd Zeiss lens that I have reviewed. The current “Zeiss look” debuted on the ultra-premium Otus series, and is one of the most elegant looks in the business. One of my favorite aspects of this current design language is how the lens hood design is a part of the “flow” of the lens profile. Many lens hoods are functional, but look like afterthoughts from a design perspective. Zeiss lenses have a reputation for being some of the best made lenses in the business, and that truth ratcheted up with the Milvus series for Canon and Nikon DSLRs due to having thorough weather sealing to compliment the all metal and glass construction. What the Milvus (or Otus) series lenses are not, however, is light. They are typically among the heaviest lenses in their respective classes, with a unique heft and feeling of density that is uniquely Zeiss in my mind.

In this video I take a close, hands on look at the build and design of the Batis 18mm and 25mm lenses:

The Batis series takes the Zeiss design ethos of having very well-built lenses complete with weather sealing but then marries that with the mirrorless need for much lighter lenses. As a result, the Batis lenses look familiar but feel different in the hand. I first reach for them expecting the familiar heft that belies the size of the lens only to find a lens that feels surprisingly light. An excellent case in point is the Zeiss Batis 18mm f/2.8 and the Milvus 18mm f/2.8. Both lenses are made for full frame sensors, and have fairly similar dimensions (Batis is 100mm in diameter and 80mm long, while the Milvus is 90mm in diameter and 93mm in length – which translates to 96% of the same volume). The weight? Well, the Batis lens weighs 330g, while the Milvus lens is 721g! The Batis series is remarkably light by comparison.

In fact, the Batis 18mm even manages to be lighter than the physically smaller Batis 25mm f/2 lens. Despite this light weight, however, the Batis 18mm is fully weather sealed and has an excellent build quality. I carried it mounted on a Sony a7R3 on my Peak Design Slide Light strap throughout Washington, D.C. one day (I walked about 8 miles), and didn’t ever really feel the weight of the camera and lens combination. That’s a remarkable achievement for a wide angle, large aperture prime lens designed to cover the full frame image circle.

The lens has a petal-shaped lens hood, which is made of plastic rather than metal to help conserve weight. It is finished in such a way to match the lens barrel, though I didn’t find the match as seamless as that on the 25mm f/2. The anodized metal satin finish on Zeiss lenses always looks great to me, and this one is no exception. The royal blue Zeiss badges on either side of the barrel are the only ornamentation on the lens outside of the unique feature of the Batis series – an OLED screen mounted on the top of the lens barrel.

The barrel has no switches on it, so you will have to switch into Manual Focus mode in the camera body, or by shooting in DMF (Direct Manual Focus) mode that continues to allow autofocus but allows you to manually override focus at any point. One nice thing about this is the that camera will automatically zoom in the image on the LCD screen or viewfinder when manual input is detected, which makes it much easier to make quick manual adjustments on the fly.

The manual focus ring has a rubberized texture that is very similar to the Otus series. Some has objected to this, citing that the rubberized surface will break down and peel over time, but I have never seen any evidence of this actually happening. Sometimes people just like to complain. It is an easy surface to grip, and, unlike the rubberized focus rings of some other brand lenses that I have used, I have found that the Zeiss material isn’t particularly prone to collecting lint.

There are no distance markings on the barrel, which is typical for mirrorless autofocusing lenses due to manual focus being “focus by wire”. All focus input on the manual focus ring is routed through the autofocus motor of the lens, and it is actually the focus motor, not the ring, that moves the elements. Because there is no mechanical connection to the lens elements, there is no fixed position for the focus ring, and thus no traditional focus distance information. Most mirrorless lenses force you to rely on focus information in the camera body, but, as mentioned, the Batis 18mm has an OLED screen that can display this information instead. When the camera is turned on the OLED will flash the word “Zeiss”, and then what information that is further displayed there will depend on what mode you put it. Out of the box it will mostly stay dark unless you are in manual focus mode, when it will display actual focus distance as a numerical value (in meters [up to two decimal points] or feet), which is very handy and arguably more useful than a traditional focus window.

The usefulness doesn’t end there, however. If you put the camera in MF mode and then turn the manual focus ring to the left past minimum focus 360 degrees you will enter into the control for the OLED. You have three options there: ON, MF (Default Position), and OFF. In the ON position it will show the focus distance even in AF mode. If you put the camera in MF mode and twist the focus ring to the right for a while it will allow you to switch the readout to measuring in feet rather than meters. You might argue that this is of minimal value, but when you consider that many mirrorless lenses lose any kind of distance window, I think that this is one of the beneficial hallmarks of the Batis line.

Moving to the lens mount, you will find a metal lens mount with a rubberized gasket (for the weather sealing) in Zeiss blue (always a nice touch to me). It’s a small thing, but the raised circular area that denotes the lens mount point on the outside of the barrel is actually very useful. Many lenses just have something painted there, but if you are in dark or dimly lit conditions (like when shooting Astro), being able to find the mount point by tactile feel is kind of a big deal. Thank you, Zeiss, for thinking of the small things. Up front the look of the lens is very familiar to Zeiss shooters, with metal filter threads (a large but common 77mm here), and classy branding information.

Unlike the 25mm, the Batis 18mm doesn’t have a particularly useful maximum magnification figure. It can focus down to a respectable 25cm (9.84”), but the shorter focal length doesn’t produce a great magnification figure (about 0.10x).

The Batis 18mm is, like other Zeiss lenses, made in Japan. All in all, this is a beautiful lens that will look very handsome mounted on your camera and is light enough to never be an issue.

Batis 18mm Autofocus

I’ve already dealt briefly with the manual focus ring in terms of its feel, but before I deal with the autofocus, let me briefly detail the nature of the manual focus action (it just seems right when reviewing a Zeiss lens!). It’s pretty well documented by this point that I’m not a huge fan of focus by wire, but I have to admit that some of these premium lenses are starting to make it a much better experience. The weight of the manual focus ring on the Batis 18mm is about right, with the freedom to move fast when making major focus changes but enough weight to make small, precise movements when needed. The speed of movement responds to your input speed, so it will move quickly when making fast input and then slowly when you want more precision. There doesn’t seem to be an issue with lag between your input and focus changes. All in all this is a much more sophisticated implementation of “focus-by-wire” than what I saw with early Canon STM motors. The biggest thing missing is the tactile feel that only great manual focus lenses provide – the hard stops at minimum focus and infinity and the feeling of moving the elements directly.

But this lens is a different breed than most Zeiss lenses; it is an autofocus lens (as are all Batis lenses). Thus far it is only on Sony mirrorless where we have seen true Zeiss (not Sony/Zeiss) autofocus lenses. There are two autofocus Zeiss series on Sony cameras, the Touit series (APS-C) and the full frame Batis series. There’s a lot of things that I like about the Touit lenses, but the behavior of the autofocus systems in the Batis lenses is definitely more sophisticated. The Touit lenses tend to be louder in operation, while the Batis lenses are essentially silent in operation. The only real noise that I typically hear in operation is the beep confirming focus lock.

Focus speed is generally excellent. I had no issue with missed focus, focus pulsing, or any of other annoying behaviors I’ve seen with some wide angle lenses on mirrorless systems. I also had good success with focus accuracy, with no real misses coming to mind.

All of the various Sony focus modes work well, as does technology like Eye AF. There are limits to Eye AF with a wide angle lens, as if your subject is too far away from the camera the focus area (eye) may be almost too small to detect. At reasonable distances (15 feet or less), Eye AF works fine. This is not the kind of focal length where you will be doing a lot of Eye AF kind of work anyway, but the tech does work fine.

All in all the autofocus performance from the Batis 18mm is a positive experience. It is fast, quiet, and accurate. I have no real critiques to offer up here. The effective autofocus combined with this focal length should definitely put this lens on the radar of vloggers, as this will give you one of the best experiences of any current combination.

Batis 18mm Image Quality

The single greatest reason to buy Zeiss is because of their incredible experience with creating excellent optical instruments. The name has been synonymous with excellent image quality, and my expectations are frankly pretty high whenever I review a Zeiss lens. This lens employs the familiar Distagon optical arrangement and has 11 element in 10 groups. It is optically more complex than the 25mm f/2 due to the greater challenges with this wider focal length.  Speaking of the Batis 25mm f/2:  you can catch my review of it here.

I would encourage you to watch this video where I break down the image quality performance and do a direct comparison to the 25mm f/2:

Both the 18mm f/2.8 and the 25mm f/2 have unique strengths. The Batis 18mm f/2.8 may be one of the sharpest wide angle lenses that I’ve seen in the middle of the frame, with near perfect sharpness and contrast even at f/2.8. Its performance is a little uneven, though, with a noticeable variance between the center 2/3rds of the frame and the outer portion of the frame…particularly at closer focus distances, where some field curvature comes into play. It also exhibits more distortion and vignette than the 25mm f/2. At infinity distances it has a slight edge in sharpness and contrast in the center 2/3rds of the frame, but the extreme corners favor the 25mm…but not by a huge margin.

The Batis 25mm f/2 stands out for the evenness of the resolution across the frame. It never quite reaches the level of sharpness and contrast in the center of the frame of the 18mm (though it is excellent in its own right) but gives a more compelling edge to edge performance. It exhibits lower distortion and vignette as well. The 18mm f/2.8 has lower coma than the 25mm f/2 with both lenses wide open, but stop the 25mm down to f/2.8 and it gives the sharper result with lower coma.

Batis 18mm Resolution and Contrast

It should be noted that at closer focus distances (I formally tested at both close and distant focus distances) the amount of distortion does become a factor. The Batis 18mm f/2.8 actually leaves somewhat of a mustache distortion behind after just the embedded lens correction (Sony embeds some correction even into RAW files). The byproduct of this is some field curvature at close focus distances (10 feet or less), that means that when the center is perfectly in focus the edges are not. This is obviously a non-factor at infinity, and while the corners lack a little in contrast and resolution at infinity, it’s not by a large margin. Check out the comparison at both focus distances between center and edge:

The great, great strength of the Batis 18mm is that in the center portion of the frame image quality is essentially perfect even at f/2.8. It has incredible amounts of sharpness and perfect contrast, producing incredible amounts of detail. Zeiss has always excelled at delivering really excellent microcontrast (the ability to produce high detail in small textures), and the Batis 18mm combined with the Sony a7R3’s great sensor produces some stunning detailed images in the center portion of the frame. Look at this crop from one of the formal dining rooms in the White House – the amount of detail in vase is incredible!

I could also deeply crop into photos including people and have incredible amounts of detail remaining on faces even after a deep crop. Case in point of this shot of my wife and I:

The high resolution from the lens/camera combo also extends the usefulness of the lens as a general purpose walkaround lens, as all three of these takes on the White House are all from the original image.

Even the final deeply cropped image is still more than adequate for sharing in most digital spaces (it is nearly 1900 pixels on the long end, just under the HD format for Facebook, which is 2048 pixels on the long end).

If I compare with the Batis 25mm f/2, the Batis 18mm shows a slight advantage at f/2.8 across a good portion of the frame.

At essentially all apertures the extreme edges never quite equal the center performance, though (as we will see in a moment), that is exaggerated by just how incredible the Batis 18mm is in the center of the frame.  Here’s a comparison at f/8 of both center and edge performance at both focus distances:

I did a comparison with the brand new Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8 ART lens, which is optically exceptional. While the Sigma is a Canon EF mount, I used the Sigma MC-11 adapter to adapt the lens to the Sony a7R3 body. What I found is that both lenses were similar in the center of the frame, with the Batis giving ever-so-slightly more contrast pop. At the edges of the frame, the Sigma is little bit stronger, but this is also one of the best corner performances that I’ve seen, so the Batis is no slouch. Unsurprisingly the Batis color was a little richer and more deeply saturated (always a Zeiss strength).

Both lenses are pretty exceptional, though the huge advantage for the Batis is that the Sigma weighs more than three times as much and thus isn’t as practical for shooting on Sony.

Another strong contender in this class has been the Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 VC lens (another Canon EF mount lens), that has been my standard for a while when comparing to wide angle lenses. The Sigma 14-24mm ART has leapfrogged this lens, however, and the Batis handles it easily. The center performance is fairly close (the Tamron is fantastic in the center of the frame), but at the edge of the frame the Zeiss is the easy winner. As with the Sigma (but even more so), the color reproduction favors the Zeiss lens. The lighting had changed a bit, but I worked to balance exposure in post.

This is a pretty convincing win for the Batis lens, and the same observation about size and weight is applicable here. Bottom line is that the image quality from the lens is excellent, and I got many highly detailed images out of my time with the lens.

This amount of resolution and contrast is useful in a variety of situations. The extreme edges never really match the performance near the middle of the frame, but, as we’ve seen, the corners are still pretty great.

Bokeh, Coma, Flare, and Color Rendition

One thing worth noting is that there is a difference between the two Batis wide angle lenses in their color temperature. The 18mm consistently delivered slightly cooler results than the 25mm. Which is preferable is probably a matter of taste. For me personally my preference varied from one image setting to another.

I preferred the Zeiss color to that from Sigma, Tamron, and Laowa (I also compared the Laowa 15mm f/2 Zero D lens). I’ve got the benefit of looking at the originals on my incredible calibrated BenQ SW271 monitor (a superb display for photographers), and draw my conclusions based on that.

Color rendition from either lens is pretty awesome, though. They have the unique Zeiss ability to deliver results out of camera that really need minimal processing, and what processing you might do is more based on wanting a certain “look” than to help create accurate results. I punched up the colors and contrast in this landscape shot, but the straight from camera result already looked excellent.

Flare resistance is good but not perfect. You can experience some minor ghosting effects with the sun in the frame, but they are limited in scope. I shot into the sun a lot, and what I found is that contrast held up well, though I did see some various ghosting artifacts in a few situations.

All in all, this is a pretty good performance. I essentially had to create torture test scenarios to get anything significant. Stopping down to narrow apertures also produces a nice sunburst effect:

Coma performance is also very good. Even at f/2.8 the amount of coma is minimal. I would say the biggest negative factor for shooting astro is the fact that vignette is pretty heavy. Here’s a night sky shot along with a few pixel level crops from the top extreme corners:

The sharp, crisp star points along with the other excellent optical attributes of the lens will give you a great looking result.

The weak spots of this lens are vignette and distortion. Sony does allow for some correction in camera (which affects both JPEG and RAW files), but the in camera profile leaves both some vignette and some distortion left over. In some situations I found that adding the Lightroom profile for the lens overcorrected the vignette, leaving some the corners somewhat unnaturally bright. I dialed back the vignette correction a fair bit (-68) which left a more even result:

This is something to be aware of. The in-camera profile also leaves some noticeable distortion left behind, and unfortunately it has a bit of a mustache pattern. The good news is that the Adobe profile does a good job of cleaning up the rest of the distortion.

If having very low distortion is a priority for you, the Laowa 15mm f/2 Zero D that I recently reviewed might be a valid alternative.

Chromatic aberrations simply weren’t an issue in any kind of practical use. There’s nothing to worry about there, which contributes to the excellent contrast from the lens.

This lens doesn’t get a perfect score in all optical categories, but its strengths are so pronounced that I suspect that most users will pretty delighted by it anyway. It is just incredibly sharp…and the color and contrast are equally fantastic.

As always, I recommend that you visit the Image Galleries here to look at real images for yourself.

Conclusion

The Zeiss Batis 18mm f/2.8 has few natural competitors. The most likely is the fairly new Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 G Master lens, but I haven’t used that lens personally and can’t account for its performance. What I can tell you is that the Sony lens is twice as heavy and costs an additional $700. That may or may not be a deal breaker for you. If your priority is to keep your mirrorless kit light and portable while retaining exceptional image quality, it would hard to vote against the Batis 18mm. It really delivers as a light, portable, and yet optically exceptional lens. It does have some weaknesses, such as distortion and vignette, but a software profile does a good job of eliminating those. The extreme corners aren’t quite as sharp as the center, but they stand up compared to competitors, and the majority of the frame is incredibly sharp and contrasty. The lens is beautifully made, autofocuses well, and has quality weather sealing. There’s just one final challenge – the price tag, which, at $1499 USD, isn’t cheap. Zeiss lenses rarely are, though, and those who purchase them understand why. The images just have that extra bit of sparkle that spoils you for ordinary lenses!

Pros:

  • Beautiful build quality that mixes premium finish with light weight
  • Fully weather sealed
  • Excellent autofocus system that is fast, quick, and quiet
  • Incredible sharpness and resolution over much of the frame
  • Great microcontrast
  • Great color rendition and rendering
  • Chromatic aberrations near perfectly controlled

Cons:

  • Moderate distortion
  • Strong vignette at wide apertures
  • Extreme corners never get as sharp as center portion
  • Expensive

Gear Used

Zeiss Batis 2.8/18mm Distagon T*: B&H Photo | Amazon | Amazon Canada | Amazon UK | Ebay

Sony a7R III Camera: B&H Photo | Amazon | Amazon.ca | Amazon UK  | Ebay

Peak Design Slide Lite:  Peak Design StoreB&H Photo | Amazon | Amazon Canada | Amazon UK

Adobe Photoshop Creative Cloud 1-Year Subscription

Alien Skin Exposure X2 (Use Code “dustinabbott” to get 10% anything and everything)

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